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Arts in Review

On Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett and Vile play next to, but not with, each other

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Australian indie darling Courtney Barnett’s 2015 release Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit brought her a shower of well-deserved critical and commercial success upon release. The record’s bittersweet rock played second-fiddle to Barnett’s uncompromisingly self-conscious lyricism and penchant for weaving compelling narratives out of the most mundane aspects of her life. By structuring songs like “Depreston” around stream-of-consciousness observation as opposed to overt storytelling, Barnett charmed listeners with spotty narratives that more closely mirror the way we remember things — a muddy background spotted with sharply-defined (if mundane) detail. Kurt Vile’s b’lieve i’m goin down…, also released in 2015, mirrored Barnett’s lackadaisical, experience-first songwriting and delivery, perhaps focusing more on folk elements than Barnett.

In a genre which sees so little collaboration compared to the pop and hip-hop arenas, it’s refreshing to see the result of a joint effort between Barnett and Vile. Lotta Sea Lice is, if forgettable at times, a cohesive body of work that fits snugly within what overlaps between Barnett’s and Vile’s individual aesthetics.

“Over Everything,” the first single released for the record, blends Vile’s folk with the twangy acoustic numbers Barnett often includes between more energetic numbers. Over a catchy — if not amorphous — guitar line, the duo trade verses which, despite their sometimes-vague imagery, constitute a philosophy of the don’t sweat it variety. Like much of the record, “Over Everything” is lyrically ambiguous despite its clear imagery, which begs the question: why are two lyrically-gifted singer-songwriters finding it so hard to tell a compelling narrative?

The same criticism applies to “Continental Breakfast,” which comes off more as the result of the pair riffing on a topic, and pulling the resulting imagery together through the overarching trope of sitting down to eat a continental breakfast. (Which itself implies a location: a hotel or hotel-like establishment, and a state of transience, since continental breakfasts are served almost exclusively in airplanes and hotels, both indicative of travel, a transitory condition.) Vile tacitly acknowledges the motif through his lyricism, admitting that, “after all, it’s just a rental.”

Lotta Sea Lice misses the mark with its instrumentalism. The assumption is that Barnett and Vile chose to collaborate based on the lyrical and stylistic similarities evident in their work — both employ bittersweet melodic lines that often work against the melody in an attempt to communicate melancholy, all while retaining a distinct pop brightness that comes through in the high energy of Barnett’s work, and Vile’s tongue-in-cheek cheerfulness (evident in tracks like 2015’s “Lost my Head there”). The result is a collection of tracks that, taking precautions not to let either artist overshadow the other, end up stifling both.

Some tracks manage to shine despite the self-imposed blandness that mars most of the record. “Fear is Like a Forest” finds a more aggressive rock groove that both artists take advantage of in equal measures, singing in harmonies and working together on the track.

Regrettably, the bulk of Lotta Sea Lice is an exercise in not stepping on anyone’s toes, where it should have been an opportunity for both Vile and Barnett to achieve a common goal by taking coordinated steps together.

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